Danger: A shark

How a mysterious warning helped a literature professor finish his mother’s novel.


The scholarship of Frederick de Armas, the Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Service Professor in the Humanities, Spanish Literature, and Comparative Literature, primarily focuses on Cervantes, Calderón, and other authors of the Spanish Golden Age. In his free time, he skipped forward a few centuries to publish a Spanish-language novel, El abra del Yumurí (Verbum, 2016), originally started by his mother and set in pre-Castro Cuba. He shared the story of its genesis with the University of Chicago Magazine.—Jeanie Chung

When I was a child in Havana in the 1950s I would watch my mother, Ana Galdós, as she sat at her desk almost every afternoon to write. She told me she was writing a novel called El abra del Yumurí—referring to an opening between the mountains through which Cuba’s Yumurí River flows. A very strange title indeed, but I had heard it before since it referred to a painting in my grandmother’s house.

My mother was determined to write a work in the manner of my ancestor Benito Pérez Galdós, one of the most important novelists in 19th-century Spain. When my mother moved to France, she was still working on the novel, but once we came to the United States she abandoned all work on her project. She told me that we were now in a new country and that everything had to be done in English.

Although over the years I kept insisting that she go back to her novel, she never did. She had to work to make a living.

In 1989, when she was 75 years old, my mother retired to a small town in Iowa. She wrote again—some poems and a small book of essayistic fiction—but all in English. When she was almost 90, I asked her again about the novel. She told me with some sadness that she would never finish it. She only had some fragments and her ideas on the subject were too confused.

She pointed to a corner, where I saw a folder with some yellowing papers, and she told me that the pages were all mine. I should do with them as I wished. By the time she was 95 she had lost some of her memory. I would ask her about events or characters in the novel, but she would not remember them.

Before she died I vowed that her novel would not be forgotten. I would go over the fragments, some typed, others written by hand, but all of them corrected many times. She had written the same scene over and over again as if trying to improve it, to visualize it.

Reading these fragments, it became obvious to me that there was a lot of Pérez Galdós in her work. There were also elements of other writers such as Simone de Beauvoir, Victor Hugo, and Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier.

I soon realized that the protagonist, Carolina, embodied many of my mother’s manners, experiences, and ideas. But there did not seem to be a way to bring together these fragments.

Nor was it clear what this painting that Carolina had dreamt of and sought to find in the real world had to do with other elements. Finally, I came to a strange and mysterious phrase, all by itself on a somewhat crumpled piece of paper: “Peligro. El Tiburón” (Danger: A Shark). This phrase allowed me to invent a Cuban myth and to configure a new and menacing character known as El Tiburón.

Carolina no longer represented my mother since she started to fashion her own identity, even though I made sure that she shared my mother’s opinions on the role of women in society. My mother originally wanted to create a novel following two Cuban families over several generations. Since I could not even begin to picture characters that she never invented or named, I developed a plot based on the mysterious phrase and decided to use a much briefer time frame: the last few months of 1958, ending with the triumph of Fidel Castro.

The story begins in Havana in October of 1958, when Carolina Vivez wakes up one morning having dreamt of a beautiful painting. The more she searches for this mysterious art object that, according to her, has to exist in everyday reality, the more she enters a zone of danger, where ancient legends come to life. The novel seeks to capture a critical moment in the history of Cuba through five women with different points of view and different objectives, but these women somehow become part of a web that none can escape.

As I developed the plot, I kept all the characters that my mother enjoyed, such as Paule, her French friend, and three gossipy card players. New characters would spring up as I wrote: Mamá Lucía is drawn from my own grandmother. Some, like the Comandante, could have definitely been conceived by my mother. Other more picaresque figures may have betrayed some of my mother’s sense of decorum.

Although some of the first readers of the novel wanted me to turn it into detective fiction, a whodunit, I resisted the urge because it would have transformed the 19th-century ambience of the novel. But as I went on, I did include a serial killer.  He entered the novel as a joke, a kind of satire of the need to make everything about a murder.

Curiously, in the last chapters he started to absorb more and more protagonism, as I had to keep changing the beginning to suit his role. Since he ended up providing me a way to end the novel, the joke is on me.

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